Thursday, April 3, 2014

March 2014


    The worlds created by director Wes Anderson aren’t exactly real life but they offer a post-cynical, dead-pan comic reflection of reality, in which everyone’s emotions are on full display as if they are speaking the most important words of their  lives.
     His results have been hit and miss; “Rushmore” and “Moonrise Kingdom” were great; “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited” less so. But his newest confection is sheer delight. He’s conjured up an incredible fairy tale filled with an unending assortment of distinctive characters, led by the unforgettable Gustave H.
      After the usual Anderson introduction—no one sets up their films with such detail and humorous sight gags—we arrive at the heart of the story. A very famous and rich old man (F. Murray Abraham) decides to tell his life story to an inquisitive writer (Judd Law) who is staying at the legendary, but nearly deserted Grand Budapest, located in the imaginary country of Zubrowka.
     The film flashes back to the late 1930s when the hotel was in full flower, under the impeccable guidance of Gustave, concierge extraordinaire (played to perfection by Ralph Fiennes). Two important things happen immediately: newly hired Lobby Boy Zero Moustafa becomes Gustave’s protégé and the departure of 85-year-old Madame D (played like a wide-eyed silent-film character by Tilda Swinton under stacks of hair), one of the many elderly customers Gustave is devoted to.
      A few weeks later she’s dead, sending Gustave and Zero on the adventure of their lives as they are chased across Europe by Madame D’s scheming family.
     Fiennes wonderfully measured performance of this interesting combination of manners, brashness and old-school resourcefulness carries the film like no actor in an Anderson film has since Jason Schwartzman in “Rushmore.” The young Zero, played by 17-year-old Tony Revolori, nearly equals Fiennes for screen presence, and every member of the supporting cast has a great moment or two. Nearly all are Anderson alumni, including Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Swinton and Schwartzman.
     Inspired by Austrian screenwriter Stefan Zweig, Anderson and co-writer Hugo Guinness throw into the plot virtually every cliché of classic mysteries, yet they do it in such an offhanded manner that you barely notice. The action rarely slows down long enough for us to take in all the craziness, but it accumulates into a comic tour-de-force, part Marx Brothers, part Preston Sturges, and a full dose of Wes Anderson.   

THE STUNT MAN (1980) and
      Peter O’Toole, who died in December at the age of 81, became a screen legend at age 30. As the title character of David Lean’s magnificent “Lawrence of Arabia,” best picture winner in 1962 and acclaimed since as one of cinema’s towering achievements, O’Toole mesmerized audiences with his piercing blue eyes, flowing white robes and graceful, almost feminine, bearing. This young, previously unknown Irish actor became an overnight sensation, forever linked to the iconic image he and Lean forged out of T.E. Lawrence.
      While the rest of his career only occasionally lived up to the promise of that galvanizing performance, and only twice after he turned 40, O’Toole’s infamous carousing—one of the UK’s three prodigious drinkers, along with Richard Burton and Richard Harris—somehow made up for his diminished importance on screen. At his death, he was treated as one of the all-time greats, an acting treasure. Yet, despite his eight best actor nominations (the most without a win), his rep rested on three films in the 1960s (“Lawrence” along with “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter,” playing Henry II in both), two rarely seen 1972 cult favorites (“Man of La Mancha” and “The Ruling Class”) and two quirky pictures in the 1980s (“The Stunt Man” and “My Favorite Year”).
      There aren’t even interesting failures or forgotten gems in between: Most of his career was spent in overblown epics or offering jokey bits in second-rate films.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to slam the man; at his best he dominated the screen. Yet his legend rests more on being a first-rate bloke who lived life to its fullest than his movie career.
      He was only 50 (yes, that deserves an “only”) when he gave his last great performance as Alan Swann, a semi-retired, Errol Flynn-like movie idol in “My Favorite Year.” Playing Swann’s hedonistic, self-assured falling-down-drunk side was second nature to O’Toole, but he also portrays the swashbuckling star as ashamed of his estranged relationship with his young daughter and absolutely frightened of performing for a live audience. As wonderfully entertaining the cartoonish aspect of the character is, O’Toole is equally affecting as the flesh-and-blood man behind the dashing reputation, who admits, mustering all his honesty, “I’m not an actor…I’m a movie star.”
     Scheduled to appear as the guest star on a 1950s comedy show--modeled on the Sid Caesar’s show, starring the strutting, self-absorbed  King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna)—Swann arrives drunk, prompting King to appoint his eager-to-please junior writer Benjy (Mark Linn-Baker) as Swann’s baby sitter for the week leading up to the show.
      Watching it again for the first time since I saw it in theaters 30 years ago, I was struck by how consistently funny the film remains. It’s not just the irresistible sarcasm Swann constantly spews out, but at least a half-dozen brilliantly staged set pieces, courtesy of writers Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo and actor-turned-director Richard Benjamin.
      Laugh out loud funny are Swann’s first meeting with the show’s staff in the writer’s room (he’s unconscious after an all-night drunk and Bill Macy’s head writer goes ballistic) and when the star visits Benjy’s Brooklyn home and his mother (Lainie Kazan at her best), her Filipino second husband and bemused uncle (veteran comic Lou Jacobi) fawn over Swann. The sequence is as hilarious as Woody Allen’s best Brooklyn flashbacks, perfectly capped when they open the door to leave and find all the building’s tenants stuffed in the small hallway waiting to glimpse the movie legend.
      The line between performing and real life was also the theme of O’Toole’s other mid-career success, the cult-favorite “The Stunt Man.”
      As dictatorial filmmaker Eli Cross, O’Toole is hammy, outlandish, flip and absolutely perfect. Though it earned him another best actor Oscar nomination, it’s really a supporting role as the plot’s focuses on wanted man Cameron (the uncomfortably stiff Steve Railsback) who becomes the primary stunt man on Cross’ movie shoot.
     Manipulative, ruthless and, judging by the movie scenes portrayed, talentless, Cross takes Cameron under his wing in an odd, complex relationship at the same time that Cameron and the picture’s leading lady (Barbara Hershey) become involved. O’Toole spends most of the film in his director chair on a crane—hovering godlike above everyone, shouting his sarcastic insults. While it’s not a performance comparable to his more substantial roles, he’s extraordinarily entertaining as the stereotypical cliché of a Hollywood director.
      These two performances evaluated O’Toole’s status enough that he remained there for the next 30 years.
       His best work after that came as the pretentious science professor trying to clone his deceased wife in “Creator” (1985) and as Sir Cedric Charles Willingham in “King Ralph,” who helps tutor a low-class American (John Goodman) so he can achieve royal status.
       His final Oscar nomination came for his role in “Venus,” as a wise-cracking elderly stage actor (looking older than his 74 years) who bonds with a moody college-age woman. It’s more presence than performance, but he shows he still has a twinkle in his eye in his 70s as he flirts with his “Venus.”
      Of course, the reality of contemporary cinema is that there are plenty of superb actors, but very few real characters who can bring to a film what O’Toole could when he tried. So maybe I’m nitpicking at the esteemed heaped on the lanky Irishman; no, he wasn’t a consistently great actor, but, to borrow an Orson Welles line, “he was some kind of a man.”

     This fascinating French drama, a rather unadorned coming-of-age story, proves that all a movie really needs is a couple of well-acted, interesting characters. I can’t say I was looking forward to watching a three-hour film about a high school girl falling in love with a twentysomething woman, but the performances of Adele Exarchopoulus as the teen and Léa Seydoux as her newfound love were so compelling that, even at its unusual length, I remained riveted to their story.
      After an unsatisfying fling with a boy from school, Adele spots this free-spirited, blue-haired lesbian and is thunderstruck. She persuades her guy friend to take her to a gay bar, and, as happens only in the movies, she sees Emma there and then brazenly follows her to another club where she is introduced.
     Quickly, Adele and Emma, a self-absorbed struggling painter and wannabe intellectual, become inseparable.
     Other than the indulgently long, nearly pornographic, scenes of lovemaking, the film is your typical story of young love. Adele, younger and inexperienced, feels unworthy in the company of Emma’s artist friends and soon it becomes an issue. Then, when Adele takes a job at a kindergarten (not an important enough calling from Emma’s point of view) she is tempted by a male coworker.
     Yet Exarchopoulus (an extraordinarily talented actress but that name will not fly in Hollywood) and Seydoux are able to invest so much authenticity into their characters that they make the cliché plot compelling and the fate of this couple well worth the picture’s epic length. These two amazing performances were specifically cited, along with writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche, when the film won 2013’s Palme d’Or, the top award at the Cannes film festival.
      Of course, the movie didn’t really need to be so long, but wouldn’t you rather watch two people interact, emotionally and intellectually, in an intensely realistic manner for three hours than stare at computer generated monsters or spaceships?

THE HUNT  (2013)
     What European filmgoers already know—that Mads Mikkelsen is one of the best actors in the world—will hopefully soon become common knowledge in this country as he’s currently starring as the legendary Hannibal Lecter in a new NBC series.
      Equally effective as a volatile psychotic and a simple everyman, Mikkelsen is best known for the intense Danish film “After the Wedding,” playing a conflicted resistance fighter in “Flame and Citron” and as the cold-blooded, deadly gambler Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale.”
     In “The Hunt,” Mikkelsen plays a soft-spoken, somewhat naïve daycare worker, who is in the middle of a custody dispute over his pre-teen son. Then, in the ultimate nightmare for anyone who works with children, he is accused by his best friend’s young daughter of inappropriate behavior. The girl barely knows what she’s saying and quickly retracts her claims, but the daycare supervisor is convinced and soon everyone in this small, rural Denmark town assumes that Lucas is a pedophile.
      The film, directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg (acclaimed for “The Celebration,” which also portrayed people at their worst), offers a scathing indictment of the petty, small-minded attitudes of small towns (no different in northern Europe or middle-America) along with a moving portrayal of a father-son relationship that grows stronger because of the false accusations.
      Sometimes, the reactions of Lucas to these ridiculous claims are frustrating—in what is probably a typical American response, I wanted him to fight the charges more aggressively—but Mikkelsen makes his calm, almost existential approach to the situation understandable and makes the film more powerful.

     I can just hear the potential backers reaction when writer-director Nicole Holofcener pitched her idea for "Enough Said."
     "Wonderfully written Nicole, but we’re thinking that this might make a perfect vehicle for Emma Watson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Can you adjust the ages a one really wants to see anyone over 40 on a date or, my god, in bed."
     Let's face it, American movies usually only address divorced as it effects the children or as one long bad joke. And while the script for "Enough Said" has its problems, the film impresses with its honesty in dealing with the anxieties faced by middle-aged people as they gingerly step back into a relationship and all the complications that entails.
       Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a divorced Los Angeles masseuse, is introduced to Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party, just minutes after she declared that there wasn’t anyone in attendance who she was attracted to. A week later they have the requisite humorous first date, but this one feels original and authentic and develops these characters in ways that aren’t like movie characters, but real people. He’s has an obscure industry job, appropriately, as a curator of the TV museum and archives.
      But not long after their relationship gets serious, Eva begins having doubts, influenced by a new client of hers, Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), bitter from her divorce and giving Eva an earful about her loser ex.
      The main attraction of this film is that it was released just after Gandolfini’s death. He gives a naturalistic, very believable performance, though he’s not as effective as he was in supporting roles in “Not Fade Away,” “In the Loop” or “Zero Dark Thirty.”
      Louis-Dreyfus is the real star. While her Elaine is one of the iconic characters of TV sitcom history, I never thought of her as much of an actress, but she’s superb here, finding just the right mix of girlish charm and middle-age angst. Her Eva lives in the real world but can’t help making stupid decisions, acting like a teenager, when it comes to love.
      Holofcener has made a series of sometime pretentious L.A.-centric angst-filled films with women at the center, including “Lovely and Amazing” (2001), “Friends With Money” (2006) and “Please Give” (2011), but this is her best, most truthful work. 
       There’s plenty of L.A. atmosphere, and these are assuredly SoCal people, not New Yorkers. Without doing my research, I’d say this may be the best middle-age romance since the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton comedy “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003); and more substantial in its examination of what it means to make a commitment a second time, later in life. No doubt, audiences want to see romance sparking between young, attractive people—is there anything more joyful in life? But occasionally it’s nice to see a pair of regular folks, not young, not beautiful, to remind us that there is no expiration date on falling in love.

     Don't ask me to explain the title, but I enjoyed this moody, brooding tale of a young woman and her child left to go it alone after a shootout with police results in a life sentence for her husband.
       At the center of this film is a subtle and touching performance by Rooney Mara as Ruth. The exact opposite of her Oscar-nominated turn as Lisbeth Salander, her Ruth is a quiet, reflective small-town girl whose only joy in life is the love of her daughter, born after Bob (Casey Affleck) is sent to prison.
      Not much happens in this film, writer-director David Lowrey’s first film with name actors, until Bob escapes from prison and, despite the hopelessness of the situation, attempts to get back to Ruth and his daughter.
      The direction and photography (by Bradford Young) is spare and unhurried, filled with wide visas and dark, available-lighting interiors. No doubt, this film will lead to bigger-budget opportunities for Lowrey.
      In addition to Mara excellent performance is a rare substantial role for 1970s-80s movie star Keith Carradine. He plays the town's store keeper and a friend to the couple, who gives Ruth a place to stay after Bob is incarcerated. It's the meatiest big-screen role Carradine has had in years. He’s done a ton of TV in the past 20 years but his last major film role was in 1995 as Buffalo Bill Cody in the Jeff Bridges vehicle “Wild Bill.”
      He’s a comforting presence, adding to the film’s authenticity with his signature laid-back attitude—he still has the ability to communicate more with the tilt of his head than most actors can with a page-long soliloquy.     

GRAVITY  (2013)
      The first time I saw this astonishing film I was swept up by the incredible adventure, the heart-in-your-throat thrills, as Dr. Ryan Stone refuses to give up against impossible odds. Watching it again, even diminished on my 42-inch television, confirmed by opinion of its greatness, the best of 2013, and that there’s much more to Alfonso Cuarón’s film than just jaw-dropping CGI and the sublime acting of Sandra Bullock.
     In literature, it’s second-nature to seek out the symbols and metaphors, to dig beneath the plot and characters to the real purpose of the author. Yet in films, even serious, adult movies, we rarely seek out the deeper meanings, the big picture themes. Especially, in the past 20 years, audience and even critics have reduced the cinema into a simple amusement, no more intellectual than TV, pop music or a Broadway musical. I would argue that all those forms are capable of offering insights into life just as relevant as Shakespeare, Dickens or Joyce. Of course, 99 percent of the time, the movies don’t even try. And if they do, most of us miss it.
      The second viewing of “Gravity” gave me a chance to think a bit more about what Cuarón was really after, discovering—as you may have already done—that this isn’t a film about space or astronauts in dire situations or even persevering over incredible odds. It’s about loneliness; the inevitable realization that on most levels we must navigate the obstacles of life on our own. No matter how many supportive friends and family members we surround ourselves with, no matter how much we love and are loved, man is essentially on his own in this unexplainable, unmapable journey.
      The writer-director has found the perfect metaphor for our existence on Planet Earth: the soundless, airless, unending nothingness of space. Relying on sophisticated technology to keep her safe, Stone is set adrift, seemingly doomed, when damage is done to this essential infrastructure.  She’s alone, beyond what’s imaginable back on terra firma, and forced to look inward to keep going.
      It really hit me when Kowalski (George Clooney) is trying to get Stone’s mind off their horrific situation and asks her about who is waiting for her back home. That’s when we learn that Stone’s young child has died and that she seeks comfort in voices on the radio. On one level it humanizes the main character, but more importantly it adds another level of loneliness to this seemingly has-it-all, brilliant scientist. Has she sought out the endless vacuum of space because her life is equally without hope? And then, when tragedy strikes, she’s left, like so many in this world, drifting and waiting to run out of oxygen. If this isn’t existentialism, I don’t know what is.
     Of course, this is a somewhat pessimistic viewpoint of a film that is, on the surface, rather life affirming.  (And, I’ll admit, I have yet to read a similar view of the picture.) But that’s what I see in “Gravity,” and, at least for me, it makes it an even richer, more complex work; a story of both survival and hopelessness, the refusal to give in even as you recognize that you’re going to be doing it all on your own—both the living and the dying.